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“Polar Code” a Step In The Right Direction?

Drift ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen from the deck of icebreaker Xue Long, July 2010.
Drift ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen from the deck of icebreaker Xue Long, July 2010. (Photo by Timo Palo via Wikimedia Commons)

At the beginning of 2017, the International Maritime Organization, or IMO, instituted a new set of regulations for ships traveling throughout Arctic waters. It’s called the Polar Code, and it builds upon 2009 guidelines to help ships operate safely in polar waters.

Kawerak’s marine advocate, Austin Ahmasuk, says the Polar Code is an improvement on the previous regulations for ships in the Arctic, but it still doesn’t change the nature of sailing through Arctic waters.

“The Polar Code, which took effect January 1, 2017, it doesn’t make the Arctic absolutely risk free,” emphasized Ahmasuk, “but it is a gigantic step forward to address the demands that are placed upon ships in polar waters, as well as addressing impacts and acknowledging that there have been coastal communities in the Arctic for a very long time.”

According to the IMO’s website, the goal of the Polar Code is to “provide for safe ship operation and the protection of the polar environment, by addressing risks present in polar waters.”

But of course, it can’t prevent all damaging situations from happening to ships traveling in icy Arctic waters. Just this week, according to an article in the Maritime Executive, two Russian carriers and icebreakers got stuck in three-foot-thick ice near the Chukotka Peninsula.

A missing feature of the Polar Code that Ahmasuk hopes will be addressed in the future is “how Arctic communities will be engaged in mitigating and addressing shipping plans, ship operations. You know, how will communities be engaged? That is something I am interested in,” he said.

Natasha Brown, who works for IMO, said via email that the Polar Code was developed by Member States of the IMO over the course of a few years with input from a range of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), shipping groups, and environmental groups. Brown did not specifically mention local Arctic communities being a part of the development process.

Even though the Polar Code took effect on January 1, not all of the ship-design requirements will be put into place this year. Some won’t be ready until 2018 after the first survey of ships is complete. When asked if the Polar Code is an indicator of more shipping traffic coming to the Bering Sea, Ahmasuk said:

“Oh, boy, well, that’s the million-dollar question, right? It does seem apparent that there is an interest to reduce shipping costs, which the Northern Sea route would obviously do for the global shipping market. It seems as though that interest is going to be maintained despite the new Polar Code,” stated Ahmasuk.

Regardless of how many ships come through the Bering Sea and other parts of Arctic waters, the Polar Code dictates that they be categorized based on how much ice they can sail through safely.

Brown says it’s up to the Member States to enforce the Polar Code regulations on their own domestic ships and any vessels docking in their ports.

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